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Artigiamo in the city - Lecce, Historical Center

Posted on12/13/2022 by

Strolling under the warm Salento sun, in the heart of Lecce's historic center, the magic of Lecce's Cartapesta stands out among the beautiful Baroque churches and varied artisan stores.

Following the itinerary that goes from Portia Rudiae to the square of the patron saint, Sant'Oronzo, you will in fact be immersed in what is the beating heart of the Apulian artisan tradition and you will be able to admire among multiple artisan workshops: expertly crafted Lecce stone, beautiful artistic ceramics and various papier-mâché workshops, many of which still preserve their original appearance symbolic of the Salento tradition.

The first part of the itinerary is on Via Libertini where there is the Baroque church of Santa Teresa with the adjacent convent of the Carmelitani Scalzi. Here, along with the large papier-mâché statue of St. Oronzo, made in 1869 by Achille de Lucrezi from Lecce, is also located the largest papier-mâché statue in the world, with a height of 5.6 meters, a maximum perimeter of 6.2 meters and a total weight of about 5 quintals.

An important testimony of papier-mâché production from the first half of the 19th century, dedicated to the Saint Joseph Patriarch and made by Oronzo Greco on behalf of the Jesuit fathers. A work from which one can immediately see the great artistic ability of Master Greco who, through dense drapery, gives the statue a classical taste by choosing monochrome to impeccably simulate the plastic effects of Lecce stone.

But what really is "La Cartapesta" and what does this technique consist of?

Telling us how this journey, which dates back to the late 17th century, began are the Riso Brothers, one of the most famous Lecce papier-mâché workshops, now known in many countries around the world and started by the will of Maestro Antonio Malecore, master of the Riso brothers, who opened the first workshop in the center of Lecce, on the street of the artisans.

Today the Riso workshop is located on Via Vittorio Emanuele II, at number 27, which is the second part of the itinerary that precedes the wonderful Baroque square of Lecce Cathedral.

The use of papier-mâché, for artistic purposes, has been known in Italy since the 16th century, as even then statues of a sacred character were made in the likeness of those made of wood or marble, which were much lighter to transport and cheaper to make.

It is a complex working technique but made with poor materials, made of elementary and natural ingredients such as: waste paper, starch glue, straw, iron wire and terracotta, so much so that it is defined as an art that is suitable and accessible to anyone who wants to set to work.

The art of Lecce papier-mâché, a unique phenomenon in Apulia, dates back to a period between the 17th and 18th centuries, when with the development of the arts linked to the multiplication of churches and monuments, Lecce artisans found in the art of "plasticizing" paper, the possibility of creating a myriad of sacred works, which called the faithful to worship when the Counter-Reformation Church was engaged in its crusade against the Lutheran heresy.

The need to invent new ways of bringing the faithful closer to the Church produced a vast sampler of decorative motifs borrowed from reality and adopted by stonemasons, illusionists of stone, and papier-mâché artists, magicians of paper. These were asked to personify devotion with statues of saints, Christs and Madonnas, capable of touching the most intimate chords of the faithful. More than wood, papier-mâché molded itself to the creator's design and interpreted his or her desired feelings. The coloring then made the statue alive and almost real, and the illusion could be considered achieved.

It was the barbers who were the first to try their hand at this activity in which art and craftsmanship merged. These artisans used the backroom of their salon as a workshop, and between haircuts, they filled their spare time modeling papier-mâché statues. The oldest papier-mâché maker in the history of Lecce was precisely a barber: a certain Mesciu Pietru de li Cristi, so nicknamed because of his vast production of crucifixes.

This art that soon spread throughout the province, towards the end of the 20th century, due to the decay of many craft workshops, was concentrated only in the capital, which today, surrounded by several workshops, fortunately still existing, along with good food, give a complete package for an unforgettable experience.

The Bottega dei Fratelli Riso has always been faithful to the tradition of Lecce's Sacred Art, with a production of large statues for churches and small statuettes representing religious figures and nativity scenes, in recent years, it has decided to shift its creative eye to "profane" spheres as well, thus producing furnishing objects,  statues related to trades that have now disappeared from the Apulian tradition and a brand new collection, I Professionisti, made from the images of the person to be represented, to create a small but precious gift to dedicate to a professional such as a doctor, lawyer, musician or other modern profession.

Since 2009 in the Charles V Castle, just behind the main square, the "Papier Mâché Museum" has been inaugurated, housing nearly 100 works by local and non-local artists: Pantaleo, Indino Malecore, Gallucci, Guacci, Caretta, Mazzeo, Errico, Capoccia, up to the international Emilio Farina and Lucia Barata.

The combination of the elegance of the Baroque Art of Lecce Churches such as Santa Croce or San Matteo and the uniqueness of the papier-mâché works, give a unicum of artistic masterpiece, the visiting card of a great city of art, for all those who decide to immerse themselves in what is known as the land of the Sea, the Sun and the Wind and which encloses, like a precious casket, unique and wonderful works.

Duomo Square, Lecce
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